Year 1971
Studio NBC
Show Night Gallery, Episode 2-12
Producer Jack Laird
Director Jeannot Szwarc
Writer Rod Serling
Cast Barbara Rush

Henry Darrow
Length ??

Cool Air

‘‘I died that time ten years ago.’’

coolair pictureA better and far more timeless Lovecraft TV adaptation premiered December 8, 1971 on NIGHT GALLERY. It is Rod Serling's reworking of Cool Air, directed by Jeannot Szwarc and produced by Jack Laird.

Potentially much easier to adapt than Pickman's Model, Serling's screenplay nonetheless totally reformats the story, presumably to make it more TV-worthy and to give it greater depth. The results are satisfying, but definitely not pure "Lovecraft."

As in Lovecraft's version, Serling uses the first person narrator with occasional voice-overs throughout the segment. But Serling's narrator tells the story in a manner that would have been impossible for Lovecraft: not only does Serling introduce a female character (a shunned species Lovecraft most probably perceived as alien), but he also makes this female the segment's narrator!

And Serling goes further still by adapting Cool Air as a kind of love story, with strong suggestions of necrophelia at the end.

coolair pictureThe segment begins in a Gothic setting: a cemetery in the fall of the year. Subjective camera makes its way toward a gravestone while the voice of an elderly woman reminisces. She explains that she visits this grave every year, and has done so for the last fifty years.

We then flashback, and the story unfolds.

Instead of a chance meeting of strangers, as in HPL's original, Serling's narrator, Agatha (Barbara Rush), seeks out Dr. Munos (Henry Darrow). She has come to tell him that her father, Munos's friend by correspondence, is dead. Why she elects to tell him in person rather than by mail is never exactly explained.

Apparently she had expected Dr. Munos to be elderly and infirm. She seems pleased to find he is cultured, brilliant and handsome. Perhaps he's a bit eccentric, too, because he keeps his rooms cooled to 55 degrees with a primitive generator-powered refrigeration system.

The period set (circa 1920s), costumes, and the clunky but charming piece of antique air-conditioning equipment are atmospherically reminiscent of the Hammer horror films of the 50s and 60s. Spanish guitar is the unlikely, though strangely appropriate background music.

Agatha tells Dr. Munos that she has read all his letters to her father and has become fascinated with his theories about overcoming death through a mystical application of will power.

As conversation proceeds, Munos explains that ten yearsago, just before his wife died, he contracted a rare disease. Part of his treatment is that he must stay cold and he may never leave his apartment.

Nonetheless he seems a refined, gentle man and Agatha aggressively inveigles an invitation to dinner in his rooms. (Cold cuts, no doubt.)

During dinner and in subsequent meetings they become fond of each other. Then tragedy strikes when Agatha arrives one hot summer day and Munos refuses to admit her, saying he is not feeling well. On the way out the landlady detains Agatha to ask about the doctor. She tells Agatha that the only person who has seen Munos in the last week was a repairman who came to work on the refrigeration system. "Well, that repairman came down the steps four at a time and he nearly took the door with him when he went." She says she'd never seen anyone so scared and she's sure it has something to do with the doctor.

(Think that's too melodramatic? Here's how Lovecraft did the same scene: "One September day an unexpected glimpse of (Munos) induced an epileptic fit in a man who had come to repair (Munos's) electric desk lamp.")

In the middle of the night a phone call wakes Agatha. It's Munos, begging her to come in a hurry. He needs help.

She arrives during a wicked thunderstorm. The electricity is out and the air conditioner is broken. Munos appears behind his partially open door. He's wearing an eerie white cloak that covers everything but his right eye. He still won't admit Agatha but tells her to get a mechanic quickly; the temperature in his room is rising dangerously. He is uncharacteristically desperate, almost in a panic. He says the machine must be fixed tonight; morning will be too late!

In a contrived bit of plotting, it just so happens that, unbeknownst to Munos, a mechanic lives in the apartment below his. The tradesman reluctantly agrees to check the machine. He finds the pump arm is damaged and can't be replaced until the supplier opens in the morning.

Munos, still shrouded, asks Agatha to get him lots of ice. He then locks himself in the bathroom where he tries to maintain a low temperature in cold baths, adding blocks of ice as they're delivered.

Agatha is forced to talk with Munos through the locked bathroom door. She can't see what's happening to him and neither can the viewer. Agatha pounds on the door, begging Munos to let her see him.

"That would be very unwise," he tells her. "I've changed considerably in the past few hours."

What follows is a long, well acted monologue. With the camera never leaving Agatha's face, Munos tells his whole story through the closed door. We never see him, just hear his voice and watch Rush react.

The camera repositions inside the bathroom. Munos is at the door, mirroring Agatha's position on the other side. We see Munos from the back, completely hidden by his ghostly white shroud as he says, "My wife committed suicide because she could no longer stand living with a corpse."

Now back to Agatha as Munos invisibly continues, finally articulating his feelings for her, "You see my darling, I died that time ten years ago."

We hear him slump to the floor.

Agatha forces the door open to find Munos's staring, withered, brown-skinned corpse.

We cut from the corpse (and Agatha's scream) back to the present, the subjective camera, the graveyard and the elderly Agatha's voice. "Each year I visit his grave and I wonder if I'm mourning something that was, or something that might have been. But I won't ponder the question. What might have been embraces elements of horror that could drive me insane."

As the monologue continues the subjective camera gets closer and closer to a gravestone which reads "Dr. Juan Munos," the rest of the inscription is obscured by fallen leaves. A timely autumn wind blows the leaves away and we see the rest of what's written:

DR. JUAN MUNOS
Born 1877
Died 1913 and 1923

Lovecraft's Cool Air is a one-shock story built upon the grisly notion that sheer force of will can animate a corpse. It is typical of Lovecraft's minor efforts, and like many of his stories, it is predictable right down to the italics at the end: "... for you see I died that time eighteen years ago.")

Although he uses Lovecraft's grim idea, Serling's telling is much more ambitious. The introduction of the love story and the narrow escape from almost inevitable necrophelia were inspired.

Unlike Lovecraft's Munoz, who causes a feeling of repugnance, Serling's Munos is fascinating and desirable. The viewer can understand why Agatha likes him as the viewer comes to care about him, too. This "bonding" makes the tale not only chilling, it also allows pathos.

In fact, because we come to like both the characters, the viewer experiences far more revulsion from the implications of necrophelia than from the predictable sight of Munos's corpse.

It is a fine adaptation of the unadaptable, cheapened only by some lazy plotting and by the too cute inscription on the gravestone.

Interestingly, the structure of the two tales is similar. Like Lovecraft, Serling uses a lot of first person exposition, but the words are entirely his own; he has lifted nothing from the source material. Stylistically speaking, that was probably inspired, too.